I don’t know how many times I’ve stood in my kitchen thinking about whether or not I should throw a plastic cereal bag in the regular garbage can or the recycling can.

In these moments, my mind has almost no information to draw on, because I know very little about the finer details of recyclable materials. Paper, plastic, aluminum: recycle. That’s about as much as I know in terms of the endless materials I encounter on a daily basis.  

So after uselessly considering the situation, I turn to Google: “Can I recycle this cereal bag?”

And then I read through 10 articles and forums with contradictory information, one telling me to wait for my garbage collectors to come around with specific receptacles (wait, what time are they coming?), one telling me to tear the bag to see how easily it rips (ok), one telling me to rinse the bag of all food contaminants (why isn’t this cereal dust coming out?), one telling me that I can’t recycle it (ugh), one telling me to recycle it with grocery bags (ok), etc. etc.  

Eventually, I get confused and lose interest and probably make the wrong recycling decision.


I like to recycle. I like the idea of recycling. I like that I become more aware of what I consume and that I help the Earth by doing so. But I never received a formal recycling education. I was never taught all the various benefits and consequences of recycling. My recycling framework was patched together over the years mostly from common sense and watching other people.

So to help you avoid a Recycling Crisis, here are simple recycling rules to live by:

Prioritize paper and aluminum

The most important things to recycle are paper and aluminum.

Paper because trees are a finite resource and we need trees to live.


The less trees we chop down, the better. So recycle all those cardboard boxes Amazon sends you. Recycle your notebooks, your magazines, nearly all of your mail. Most paper coffee cups can be recycled (except those wrapped in a plastic film: shinier and harder). Recycle the paper bag your take-out comes in, the paper bags you get from grocery stores, leftover napkins and paper plates (paper plates and napkins with greasy food on them can’t be recycled), almost everything you’ve ever printed out (unless it’s on that fancy plastic-wrapped paper). Never recycle receipts. Most of them are on laminated material that can't be recycled. (Receipts are also carcinogenic.)

And always try to separate paper from other materials. So, for instance, if you bought some chapstick from a pharmacy that is in a plastic container with a paper back, make sure all the plastic is removed from the paper before you recycle it.

Aluminum because it is also a finite resource. And it is expensive--environmentally and economically--to extract and very easy to repurpose. Soda and beer cans--recycle these automatically. If you get takeout and it comes in an aluminum container, rinse the container and then recycle it. Same with aluminum foil.

Here are some cool facts, courtesy of “Keep America Beautiful,”

In 2009, 3.4 million tons of aluminum were generated in the U.S. and .69 million tons were recovered.

If you laid all the aluminum cans recycled in 2010 end to end, they could circle the earth 169 times!

Used aluminum cans are recycled and back on the shelf as new cans in as few as 60 days.

Twenty recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can using virgin ore.

If you’re not near a recycling receptacle, hold onto your paper or aluminum until you’re near one. It’s not that hard.

Dealing with plastic

You might be wondering why plastic wasn’t in the “priority” section. An earlier me would have been surprised by this, too, but the environmental and economic costs of recycling plastic are not as convincing, especially since there are huge disparities across the world in terms of recycling processing. One town might have a super advanced recycling plant, while another might have one from the 1980s.

The energy used to rinse plastic, ship it to advanced facilities, sort out the various kinds of plastic (a lot can’t even be recycled!) and rehabilitate it for future use is steep. It costs a lot of carbon and money to do this. Still recycle it when you can, but don’t lose sleep over it.

Plus, modern landfills are pretty efficient, don’t take up that much space and do a good job of minimizing leakage and emissions. Some even generate power by capturing methane.

When it comes to plastic, just don’t use it or buy it. Banish plastic from your life. Bye, plastic.


I know, I know. This is basically impossible. Plastic is everywhere. Used for everything. But make an effort to get away from it. Never even touch styrofoam again. I don’t know why it’s still in circulation. Buy and use a reusable water bottle if possible. Buy a reusable grocery bag. 

Plastic is ubiquitous and a major pollutant of the world’s ecosystems, especially the oceans. Microplastics are terrorizing marine life. A lot of oil is used to make all the plastic out there, too. In sum, plastic should be used sparingly, if at all, by companies and consumers.

Living simply

A simple life is a life where you’re not worrying about what bin to put your cereal bag in. It’s a life where you wouldn’t even come across a cereal bag.You’d be a zero-waste human. Congrats.


But that’s for imagination land. I don’t expect many people to actually live as simple a life as that. For many people, life is too busy, messy and convenient. If left unchecked, daily consumer decisions can lead to a huge waste footprint.

And you want a little waste footprint.

So here are some tips:

Get that reusable water bottle, or use a cup: You can buy a reusable bottle pretty much anywhere. They’re easy to clean and easy to carry. And they dramatically cut down on the amount of plastic you’re responsible for.

Get that reusable grocery bag, or carry things: I’m always shocked when I go to recycle my accumulated grocery bags. How did I get so many grocery bags?!?! It seems like I’m pulling out a magician’s cloth when I take them out of the cabinet where I keep them--they just keep coming and coming until they cover the kitchen floor.

I have an awesome reusable bag (courtesy of WNYC!), but I don’t always remember to use it or have it on me when I get to the grocery store.

But it is easy to use one and you should get one. It’s a lot more convenient than having 5 grocery bag handles slash your fingers.


And it cuts down on the plastic you use. You can also use any grocery bags you do have as garbage bags--it’s a lot cheaper than buying garbage bags and further cuts down on plastic. And recycle the grocery bags you do end up with by bringing them to local grocery stores and putting them in an appropriate bin. 

Recycle old clothes and try not to buy that many new clothes. The second part can be hard. Getting new clothes is fun. But most people can probably cut down on how often they replenish their wardrobes.

The second part shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. Just bring your old clothes to a place that accepts them for recycling. Drop them off. And voila. You’ve helped to stop the overproduction of certain materials and cut down on global waste.

Compost! It's not that hard! Just put all your vegetable and fruit scraps, egg shells, coffee filters, bread and other organic materials (nothing that's oily or greasy or cooked) into a grocery bag. Then put that grocery bag in your freezer so it doesn't stink. Then when you get a chance bring the compost to a compost facility or use it in your garden. Every saturday the Farmer's market near my apartment collects the neighborhood's compost. It's great. It's easy. And it's good for the Earth. 

Eco eating and drinking

How often do you go into a convenient store and buy a water bottle (plastic) and snack (plastic), then throw it away? Who doesn’t do that? It’s so easy!

How often are you at a concert or in a bar or driving in a car and just throw what you’re eating or drinking or holding away into whatever garbage can is nearby? (I hope you’re not littering)

These are moment-by-moment decisions that happen all the time. They happen so often because they’re so easy and life can be hard. Sometimes it’s nice to be able cut ecological corners.


But whenever possible, try to buy food and beverages with minimal packaging. Try to buy only the amount you’ll eat and drink. Try to cook your own food as much as possible--it usually leads to less waste.

I think recycling makes you a more aware person. It forces you to think about your environmental impact a little bit and, I think, this thoughtfulness seeps into other areas of your life. There’s even research on the virtuous “spillover” effect of recycling.

Recycling should be a common sense, now the trick is taking that common sense and making it part of our daily lives. Let me know how you will do that in the comments.

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Defend the Planet

Simple recycling rules to live by

By Joe McCarthy